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LASD Tells Bullis Public Meetings Are Best Course

Los Altos School Board President Doug Smith responds to BCS' proposal for dialogue, saying meetings need to be public and the board can't go down the path of closed talks again.

 

The new president of the Los Altos School Board has responded to an invitation to meet with Bullis Charter School Board members for dialogue with a renewed invitation of his own: Join our public meetings.

In a letter dated Dec. 12, Doug Smith, who became president of the board Dec. 10, in essence told Bullis (BCS) that the district was open to a dialogue on facilities, too, but it wasn’t going to happen behind closed doors.

“I welcome the BCS participation in this process.  In point of fact, if BCS would like to present at the upcoming meetings, please let me know and I’ll do my best to arrange it,” Smith wrote. “We value your input, and we look forward to working together with BCS and with the wider public to ensure continued fair allocation of our very limited public facilities.”

BCS Chairman Ken Moore had written LASD on Dec. 7, suggesting “active dialogue” beginning Dec. 14 between the two boards’ committees charged with the facilities requests and offers.  BCS and LASD are engaged in the annual facilities request process mandated by Prop. 39, one that has specific deadlines for certain actions.

Smith told Patch Thursday that the school district has hewed to new mantra since the disastrous reaction to last spring’s mediated agreement: Do everything in the open.

“If there's one thing I've learned from the mediation process, it’s that trying to do a deal quietly and then sell it to the public is not the way we should be acting,” Smith said in an interview.

Indeed, after weeks of closed-door negotiations with BCS, the LASD board announced the framework for agreement in mutually vetted language at a mutually vetted time on May 7—and then saw it blow up in public meeting after public meeting in the next three weeks. Skeptical parents questioned the secretive manner in which the talks had been held, the trustees’ motives, and the multitudinous impacts, and pointed to exposure to further litigation. Attempts to integrate parents’ input into the agreement didn’t sit well with BCS. In short, the LASD parents felt their children had been “sold out” and BCS leaders felt they weren’t getting enough, Smith wrote.

“We need to have the dialogue in public so that everyone understands what the issues are,” Smith wrote. 

In his letter, Smith also raised concerns about “the tone and content of your messages to BCS parents.” He wrote that the BCS letters to parents “emphasize the continuing legal battle BCS has waged, and deliberately confuse issues and misrepresent facts,” while letters it sent to the district emphasized cooperation and collaboration. 

On Thursday, BCS Board member John Phelps said BCS was “disappointed” that LASD “chose not to respond to our proposal for direct, constructive talks,” meant to be in addition to the formal process.

“With a large group, it’s sometimes difficult to have public constructive dialogue, Phelps said. A small group would optimize that possibility, he said.

Still, Phelps said, “We will continue to engage in every way possible to constructive solution to a permanent site.”

And perhaps there are entry points.

Smith reiterated an earlier request for enrollment data made to BCS during the Nov. 5 public meeting where BCS board member Peter Evans and representative Fred Gallagher made a presentation.

“To the extent that we’ve requested additional information, it is because the District is genuinely trying to understand the BCS request, and balance that request against the needs of the other 4500 students we educate,” he wrote.

"If the documents are forthcoming, we could still consider them as part of our preliminary facilities offer due on February 1, 2013."

Michael Uhler December 14, 2012 at 04:16 PM
It seems to me that Mr. Phelps is confusing two concepts: negotiating in a large group, and public examination of the negotiations. As far as I know, there is nothing to prevent both Boards from nominating a subset of their membership to negotiate, hence solving Mr. Phelps' "large group" problem. Just do the negotiations such that both the public and the press can witness the discussions, hence solving the "secret negotiations" problem. There may be some Brown Act nuances to figure out, but it sure seems that it would be worth tackling them to prevent a repeat of the disastrous secret negotiations that occurred earlier this year.
Joan J. Strong December 14, 2012 at 05:01 PM
Michael -- I don't think mediation can happen in the context of litigation. Either side will be (rightly) afraid of saying anything public. Step one here is for BCS to drop their lawsuits. After that we can all talk. Both sides keep talking about... talking... but I don't see it happening. I'm as unexcited about that as anybody, but that's the reality as near as I can tell...
L.A. Chung (Editor) December 14, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Last year, I sat through LASD board meetings in which Doug Smith had told the board that discussions not be totally secret, but that the litigation concerns that Joan J. Strong references were very real. Back then, last winter, Smith had thought they could meet that concern by having dialogue the way contract negotiations are conducted with the unions, which are closed door, and report out about how negotiations were going. That probably is not what would be acceptable to the public now. Back then, Bullis Charter School wanted mutually vetted statements only at the end of the process. If I dug through the stories from last year, I could probably find some of that reportage.
Joan J. Strong December 14, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Thanks, Lisa. It's worth underscoring that what little that was made public in the previous mediation was copied and pasted directly into legal filings to the court by BCS last summer. In all fairness, it's likely that the LASD lawyers would do the same if they found it helped their defense. Mediation and litigation cannot mix. BCS needs to drop all pending actions for open and productive talks to proceed.
Michael Uhler December 14, 2012 at 09:10 PM
So that says that Mr. Phelps' comment is not the actual impediment to discussion. I'd like to see both boards reduce the posturing and move toward an actual solution. If they can't, or won't talk, then the only resolution will be in the courts. Are we willing to accept the delay and costs involved in that strategy?
Bart Carey December 14, 2012 at 10:37 PM
The biggest impediment to constructive dialog is non-stop lawsuits. Trying to force negotiations or a solution with lawsuits has been a disaster for our community, including BCS. If there really is a desire "to engage in every way possible to constructive solution" then drop the destructive lawsuits, at least for a while. The words and deeds of the BCS board do not match up here.
Philip Aaronson December 15, 2012 at 01:40 AM
A little history. BCS has dropped lawsuits seeking equitable facilities before, back in August of 2006, because negotiations with then superintendent Tim Justice looked so promising (note, fruitful negotiations occurred while a lawsuit was ongoing. Apparently it can happen). Unfortunately the district did not follow up with the progress that had been made at the negotiating table, and so here we are in 2012 talking about pretty much the same stuff all over again. This time without the luxury of two largely unoccupied school campuses. http://www.losaltosonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=26375&Itemid=55
Los Altos resident December 15, 2012 at 02:32 AM
Oh well if BCS tried to work with LASD 6 years ago, then they've done their best. Sue on, BCS, sue on.
Philip Aaronson December 15, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Los Altos resident: there have been multiple attempts by BCS to reach a settlement. Most recently there was another mediated offer, except that too fell apart because LASD parents would not accept the terms: http://www.losaltosonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=43184&Itemid=46 In-between BCS has made generous offers to the district to site them at the Bullis-Purissima campus. http://www.losaltosonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=17691&Itemid=56 That's just a sampling. But at some point, one might get the idea that the district really isn't interested in reaching a settlement.
Michael Uhler December 15, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Philip, let's stipulate for the moment that your recap of the past is both accurate and complete. The point of the article and my original comment was to create an environment in which the two boards could have a dialog about the future. Do you have any constructive suggestions about how to make that happen, or must we first find blame and have public trials before we can move forward. As a BCS parent, I'd think you'd be motivated to join me in forcing the boards to talk, rather than simply looking at the past.
L.A. Chung (Editor) December 15, 2012 at 08:13 PM
Los Altos Patch would love to be a forum for open and constructive communication on difficult Los Altos and Los Altos Hills issues. We welcome comments that can foster an atmosphere idea-sharing. Please continue to use us in this manner.
Philip Aaronson December 15, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Michael, my main point was simply that negotiations have occurred successfully before, even with litigation (history is a wonderful thing). As for suggestions as to how the two boards could have a dialog about the future? I have two: 1, have BCS enter into informal talks with Jeffrey Baier, superintendent of schools, and make progress reports public. This is just what happened in 2006, and there's no reason it couldn't happen again (hey, history is useful!). And 2, at this point it might be a really good idea for Doug to call up the Huttlinger Alliance chiefs and ask how to make it acceptable for board members to hold informal talks with BCS (in addition to formal public ones). Since it's the threat of litigation by that organization that seems to be the impediment.

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